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Schools don’t need a warrant to search students on safety plans for weapons, Colorado Supreme Court rules

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday broadly affirmed that school safety plans give officials the right to search students on campus without a warrant, finding that staff at a Denver high school acted lawfully when they searched a 10th grader who brought a loaded gun to school on his third day of classes in 2019.

School safety plans that require students be searched daily drew significant attention last year after a 17-year-old student who was subject to such a plan shot and wounded two administrators at Denver’s East High School during his daily search.

The state Supreme Court justices on Monday found that such searches are constitutional and that school officials do not need to obtain a warrant authorized by a judge before searching a student who is subject to a safety plan.

“A search of a student conducted on school grounds in accordance with an individualized, weapons-related safety plan is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” Justice Melissa Hart wrote in the unanimous 21-page opinion.

School safety plans, which are common across the nation, aim to curb students’ problematic behavior. Some include daily searches for weapons, while others may be related to illicit drugs or fighting. The plans are typically put in place by a multi-disciplinary team that evaluates the best approach based on the student’s behavior, home life and mental health history.

The student at the center of the Colorado Supreme Court case, identified only by his initials J.G. in court filings, was put under a school safety plan as a ninth grader at Denver’s John F. Kennedy High School in 2019 after he was found guilty in juvenile court of carrying a gun and menacing in an off-campus incident.

The 14-year-old was then subject to daily searches when he arrived at school for the rest of his ninth grade year, according to the opinion. But when he returned for the start of 10th grade in August 2019, school officials did not search him for his first two days of classes, according to the opinion.

“Nobody was really on notice” about the student’s safety plan when school started, according to Monday’s opinion.

On the third day, school officials stopped the teenager and searched his backpack and discovered he’d brought a loaded handgun to school. The student was then arrested and suspended from school.

In the subsequent criminal case, he argued that the search of his backpack was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, that the safety plan did not establish his consent to be searched, and that even if the safety plan did establish his consent, the plan was no longer active when the search occurred because of the lapse in enforcement at the start of the school year, according to the opinion.

The Colorado Supreme Court justices rejected those arguments Monday, finding that the search was constitutional because the safety plan was still in place. Students have a limited right to privacy while on school grounds and the 10th grader should have known he’d be subject to daily searches, the justices found.

“A search carried out in accordance with a previously established safety plan is reasonable at its inception because the plan diminishes the student’s expectation of privacy,” Hart wrote. “Additional individualized suspicion stemming from the student’s behavior is not required. Therefore, the search of J.G.’s backpack was justified at its inception.”

The justices noted that students maintain their constitutional rights while at school, but that constitutional protections are applied differently in school settings because public school students’ rights are limited by the state’s responsibility to maintain discipline, health and safety on campus.

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